Fixing the Election Mess... One Computer at a Time

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In the movie The Matrix, a look into the not-too-distant futureshows us that humanity has become subjugated by machines. In that movie,our drive to create better, bigger, and smarter computers led us tobuild machines that, when they disagreed with us, decided to show us whowas really in charge.

As I ponder the role of our election machinery over the last couple ofelection cycles, I'm starting to get that same look on my face thatpeople in The Matrix got when they began to suspect something wasvery wrong.

The idea of computers running amok is not at all a new concept infilmmaking. Remember the passive aggressive computer HAL in the movie2001: A Space Odyssey? With the trademark line, ''I'm sorry,Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that,'' HAL concluded that when hisprogramming conflicted with the desires of the humans around him, thehumans got to take a long walk in a short airlock.

After reading a lot of post-election, post-mortem analysis, I've come tothe disturbing conclusion that the machinery we have created to help usmake some of the most important decisions in our civic lives is lettingus down. Whether it was the hanging chads and butterfly ballots of 2000,or the hundreds of little glitches, errors, and outright bizarrenessthat have been reported from Election Day 2004, I'm beginning to thinkthat carving cuneiform on clay tablets maybe wasn't such a bad idea.

I am far from a luddite when it comes to computers and politics. Infact, early in my career I began using high-tech tools to improve thepolitical process. For example, in 1987, I began working for my firstpresidential campaign, helping the candidate's press office keep up withthe latest poll results and getting out the latest in campaign newsusing networks of PCs connected by 1200 baud modems.

Let me also make clear that I am not one of those wild-eyed conspiracytheorists either. Clearly, there were more than a few problems in manyparts of the country, and some suspicious goings-on in some criticalbattleground states. But the ''liberal media elite'' have successfullyapplied the Jedi Mind Trick and assured me that there is no reason toquestion this year's election results. No, there's no news here.Everyone is content.

But I've been around the block enough to know that elections are a messybusiness. I've been a poll monitor in more than a few Podunk precinctswhere races were decided by razor-thin margins. I once watched so manyrecounts in a state delegate race that the incumbent became so exhaustedhe conceded that the challenger's two-vote margin was good enough.

The lesson I learned from those years in the trenches of electoralpolitics was simple: The simpler the process, the easier it is to getresults that are trustworthy. Ask anybody involved in the mechanics ofvoting and you'll find a similar refrain.

Speaking at a conference a few months ago, I mentioned that I'd prefer avoting infrastructure that would allow every individual to receiveconfirmation that their vote had been accurately captured. At any pointin the election process, the voter would be able to verify that theirvote has been accurately tallied. After my presentation, a dazedaudience member asked me if I was crazy.

''As a privacy expert,'' he said, ''surely you can see the risk to asecret ballot if you had that kind of accountability in the votingprocess!''

Well, actually, knowing what I know about security, cryptography, andhow easy it is for the guy at my local 7-Eleven to print out littlepaper receipts from the Lottery computer, I am comfortable in my beliefthat a secret ballot and an audit trail are not mutually exclusive.Unfortunately, the nitwits who have designed today's electronic votingtechnologies do not appear to have ever consulted the people who runlotteries, much less those responsible for administering free and fairelections.

After studying the Florida election debacle of 2000, who in their rightmind concludes that the ''solution'' is to deploy buggy computers thatleave no paper trail and are therefore incapable of providing a recount?Yes, yes, the idea is to get the vote tally right the first time so thatyou don't have to recount. But, come on! This is our democracy here! Afall-back plan is too much to ask for?

We're a pretty advance species, but this is still an era where evenrocket scientists can mix up measuring yards and meters, resulting in amulti-million dollar space probe smashing in a Wile-E-Coyote-stylepancake on the surface of Mars. Yet, according to Diebold and SequoiaSystems -- two leading manufacturers of electronic voting systems -- andtheir apologists at hundreds of Boards of Elections who bought boththeir hype and their flawed machinery, there's no evidence that problemswith the voting machines are even a problem.

Case in point: Wellington Fla. Two weeks after the 2002 elections, thetown of Wellington had to have a special run-off election for mayor. Nooffense intended towards the fine people of Wellington, but it's not avery exciting town, and a mayoral run-off is even less so. Yet, if theelectronic voting machines are to be believed, 78 people were excitedenough about the election to have gone down to the polling place, signedin, inserted their voting card into the machine, not voted, thengone home again. Since those 78 votes had officially ''disappeared'',the mayor's race was decided by only four votes.

According to Theresa LePore, the Palm Beach County election official incharge of the voting machines used in Wellington, the machines workedfine and anybody questioning the results is a sore loser. This is thesame Theresa LePore who was responsible for the now infamous ''butterflyballot'', which helped presidential candidate and occasional Naziapologist Patrick Buchanan win a significant percentage of the elderlyJewish vote in 2000.

LePore has been widely quoted as saying all the problems boil down todumb voters, not dumb machines. Right. Certainly not dumb electionsofficials either, I'm sure.

Of course, there are plenty of instances where sore losers may want tochallenge close election results in hopes that enough craziness can beuncovered to give them an edge. But when it comes to the mechanics ofour democracy, there really shouldn't be that kind of wiggle room. I'mnot usually an advocate for unbridled government spending, but when itcomes to protecting the sanctity of our voting process, no expenseshould be spared, no safeguard should be overlooked, and no stupidityshould be tolerated.

In a country that is as closely and as bitterly divided as ours, ''closeenough'' is not good enough. Never before in the history of America has,not one, but two presidential elections been as susceptible to questionsof legitimacy as the first two presidential elections of the 21stcentury.

If we do not get to the bottom of these questions now, and build asystem that can meet skepticism with unwavering accuracy andunquestionable truth, I fear these grievous wounds to our democracy willcontinue to fester, putrefy, and ultimately poison the body politic.

Why do we tolerate so much ambiguity around voting, our most preciousdemocratic birthright? As an American, I'm embarrassed that I even haveto ask that question.

Ray Everett-Church is a principal with ePrivacy Group, a privacy andanti-spam consultancy. He is a founder of CAUCE, an anti-spam advocacygroup, and he is co-author of ''Internet Privacy for Dummies.''